NEAR ISABELLA, MINN. ‑ In a breakneck, bumper-to-bumper culture, taking a convenient route can become mindless habit. Consider groceries. It’s easy to forget that food doesn’t come from a supermarket; it’s just available there. And for some people, even fish eggs are edible when they’re labeled caviar.
Micah Friedman and Christine Cole define a different perspective. It’s one of self-reliance, sustainability and mindful choices. They reside in the bush near Isabella in northern Minnesota where an abundance of their groceries comes from the land where they live.
Friedman, 30, made his way to the North Woods from Oklahoma City where he said he grew up skateboarding. Initially, he came to learn primitive skills at the Traditional Ways Gathering on the Bad River Reservation near Lake Superior in Wisconsin. He claims no professional degrees, but over the past 10 years he has acquired a bounty of experience in a landscape and culture that offers him primitive methods of hunting, harvesting and crafting.
Cole, 27, said she grew up in a typical middle-class American family. After graduating high school from the Perpich Center for Arts Education, she attended Northland College in Ashland, Wis., where she earned a degree in sustainable community development. However, she had another yearning.
“I knew at a young age that I wanted to buy land and live in the woods,” she said. “I did make it through college, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I always knew I wanted to be out here doing something different.”
The two are well aware they could live an entirely different lifestyle: Get jobs, live in a town, buy most of their food from a store. They sometimes take on seasonal employment for a deer processor, in construction or at a resort. But for the past three years, their year-round home is an 8-by-20 cabin they constructed on their 25-acre property that is surrounded by public land. Infrequent trips to the grocery store are usually for items like bread, eggs, dairy products and spices. Procuring food from the wild is a substantial part of their lives.
Wild rice, grains and berries are among their harvest. So are wild meats like beaver, snowshoe hares and bottom-feeder fish. Occasional roadkill is part of their diet, too. They recognize these meats are stigmatized in American culture. They find that ironic. Friedman admitted he believed some of the stigmas, too, until he found out just how edible those foods are.
He also explained that stigmas often translate to wasted food. He cited how beavers are typically harvested only for their pelts. Anglers sometimes leave suckers to die on creek banks because they think suckers compete with game fish. And while cultures worldwide have traditionally eaten snowshoe hares, many people in American society don’t even think hares are edible.
Nothing goes to waste from the animals that Friedman and Cole harvest. They process a beaver like any other meat. The prime cuts, such as backstraps and hams, are chunked and cooked like steak or included in stews. They clean off its carcass and grind the meat for burgers and meatballs. With all wild meats, they render the fat and boil the entire carcass into a bone broth for soups and cooking wild rice.
As for roadkill, they’ve enjoyed two bear, a moose and multiple deer so far. But roadkill also carries a stigma as exemplified by a venison bone broth Friedman once offered to someone unfamiliar with roadkill consumption.
He found a deer that had been hit by a vehicle. It was still alive, so he contacted a conservation officer, obtained it legally, then examined its diet and discovered acorns. From there, he processed the deer with hygienic care and prepared the broth.
Friedman knew the intended recipient of his roadkill broth frequently enjoyed other types of broth at restaurants. Though the restaurants didn’t disclose their ingredients, he could account for his roadkill’s freshness, cleanliness and exactly what it had eaten. But even with that, the person being offered his venison broth turned it down.
The couple said they can only surmise why these stigmas exist. To her tastes, Cole said she has a difficult time singling out a favorite among these foods. They all have good flavor and they’re healthy. So perhaps it’s because people think of beavers as rodents or that wild meats have been labeled as gamy.
Nate Johnson and his partner, Emily Derke, reside full time in the woods in a yurt he built about a half-hour northwest of Duluth. Later this summer, they plan to move north to the Grand Rapids area. Nate described his lifestyle as “land-based.” It’s centered on using the foods and other resources that grow naturally around them. He’s been enjoying it for about nine years. Muskrat, wild leeks and Lake Superior smelt are among their favorite foods.
He said his decision to live a life of such self-sustenance began developing around the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He started paying close attention to the ramifications his buying and use habits had on the world. He recognized much of his clothing was made in sweatshops overseas. And he wanted a greater connection to the source of his material goods and food.
“I just extended that to all areas of my life. How do I take responsibility for my actions?” he asked.
Along with hunting, fishing and gathering, part of their sustenance comes from teaching and selling goods they’ve made or harvested. Johnson, 39, doesn’t deny a necessary coexistence with some modern technology. They have a cellphone, a computer and a car. But he said they use modern tools to work back toward a lifestyle that’s more directly connected to the land. For instance, materials they use aren’t always accessible where they live. Quality birch bark for canoes has become increasingly harder to find, so he has to travel longer distances. His goal is to gather materials without a car, but having a vehicle in these circumstances helps.
Johnson said learning land-based skills can be a tricky process. People who have knowledge of these skills can be hard to find and self-taught methods are difficult. He found value in seeking teachers.
“I tried to find the best people I could to learn from them. I did apprenticeships and took a lot of classes and studied with a wide range of people all over the country,” he said.
Satisfaction of self-reliance
Friedman and Cole also learned most of their traditional skills in a variety of ways: from a network of friends with similar interests; at folk schools, wild food summits and primitive gatherings; books and videos; and trial and error. They said the time and effort those skills require fosters their appreciation for all resources. Whether gathering wild foods, building a log cabin or fashioning a simple curtain rod from a branch, Cole said creating something of practical beauty gives her a sense of that resource’s value to humans and its role in the ecosystem.
They don’t claim to be experts. However, they are willing to encourage and teach what they’ve learned to anyone interested. Both will teach classes this month at the Ely Folk School, as will Johnson in June at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais.
Too, they readily acknowledge their lifestyle is not for everyone, nor are they trying to promote a mission. “We’re making a conscious decision to challenge ourselves,” Friedman said.
Cole added to that outlook. “We’re not struggling out here. We’re just trying to make our ends meet. I feel like our lives are very rich.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org